3 Ideas to Make College (Mostly) Free

Oregon's legislature is kicking around concepts that would make higher education cheaper for the state's increasingly diverse student population.

Rob Carr/AP Photo

Oregon wants 80 percent of its adults to hold a college degree or postsecondary certificate by 2025. To meet that goal, lawmakers are focused on making college more affordable—whether that means increasing funding after years of budget cuts or rethinking tuition payments altogether.

Currently, about a third of students in the Beaver State don't graduate from high school on time—or at all—and just 61 percent of graduates immediately head to college. A third of Oregon students are nonwhite, and half of students are low-income.

State and local funding for higher education dropped by 32 percent between 2007 and 2012 even as enrollment jumped by 36.2 percent, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. Unsurprisingly, Oregon students are paying 18 percent more in tuition and fees than the national average, and students' debt loads are soaring.

Here are three ideas kicking around the state Legislature that would make college free, or much cheaper, for Oregon's increasingly diverse student population. If the state can successfully pilot these concepts, they could catch on nationwide.

1: "Pay It Forward"

One proposal would allow students to attend public two- and four-year colleges at no upfront cost—so long as they committed upfront to pay their alma mater or the state a fixed portion of their post-graduation salaries. Under the plan's initial outline, the typical four-year student would pay about 3 percent of her annual income to her alma mater for 20 to 25 years.

A class at Portland State University came up with the idea, and the state's Higher Education Coordinating Commission is researching whether "Pay It Forward" would be feasible. It may recommend a pilot program in its report to the Legislature in 2015.

Getting a statewide program off the ground could cost more than $9 billion over 24 years, until enough graduates are paying into the system to make it self-sustaining, The Wall Street Journal reports. Oregon will have to figure out how to track graduates who move out of state, what to do about students who enroll in college for a few years but never graduate, and how to maintain the balance of high and low earners necessary to keep institutions fully funded.

"Pay It Forward" wouldn't necessarily eliminate the need for financial aid: Living expenses and other costs wouldn't be covered by the program. And for students who enter low-paying fields after graduation, income-based repayment for federal student loans may actually be a better deal, according to The Washington Post.

2: Free Community College

State Sen. Mark Hass has proposed that Oregon should pay for all qualified students to attend community college for two years. Students seeking an associate's degree, those pursuing an industry credential, and students wanting to earn credits before transferring to a four-year university would benefit.

Hass argues that although the proposal could cost about $250 million per year, paying for education that prepares students for better jobs will save the state money over the long run. "Two years of community-college credit is a much better value than a lifetime on food stamps," the Democratic lawmaker says.

Funding could come from a variety of sources. The state could apply for permission to use Pell Grant scholarship money for this purpose. Another option is a state-funded scholarship fund that Oregonians will vote on next year. Hass is exploring whether corporate or philanthropic contributions might help cover the cost. "It may be one of those things where it's not one silver bullet or one tax; instead it's a hundred different things," he says.

3: Requiring All Students to Earn College Credits

Last spring, lawmakers considered requiring all high school students to earn about nine college credits before graduation but balked at the $1 billion such a requirement would cost. A committee is looking into other ways of expanding opportunities for teens to earn credits while in high school, and it will report back to the Legislature in October 2014.

While committees deliberate, some local school districts are already taking action. The rural Corbett school district wants to make acceptance to a postsecondary institution a requirement for receiving a high school diploma, The Oregonian reported in October. The district already requires all high school students to take at least six Advanced Placement courses, and it pays for all juniors to take the SAT.